History logo

The Plague

And the Physician

By N.J. Gallegos Published 4 months ago 5 min read
Top Story - June 2023
The Plague
Photo by Hubi's Tavern on Unsplash

After a night of thin sleep, I rose from my bed, joints aching and body weary. Lack of rest or something else? Gently, I probed my neck and underneath my arms. No swelling. Reassuring but it could mean I hadn’t progressed to that symptom yet. I took stock. No aching skull, no bone-rattling chills. I swallowed. No sore throat. Surely, nothing more than poor sleep.

At least… I hoped.

Chasing the thought of disease from my mind, I readied my breakfast. The bread had gone stale days ago, but I was reluctant to throw it out. Just yesterday, I’d visited the baker’s cottage, finding him deep in the throes of sickness. I doubted he’d last another day. Who knew when fresh bread would be available again? I certainly wouldn't be baking any. My mother’s voice echoed in my mind, Frances, if you don’t learn to cook and clean, how will you ever find a decent husband? No doubt she would be horrified by my chosen profession but given that she’d passed on years ago from consumption, I needn’t worry about her judgments.

Dipping the bread in milk (thankfully not spoiled) helped and once breakfast was devoured, I dressed for my day—sure to be busy thanks to the plague that had descended upon my remote corner of the world. First, a base layer of cotton shirt and linen trousers (when pulling these on instead of a dress, I imagined my mother rolling over in her grave in utter shame), wool socks, and black leather boots. Over this, I pulled on my long black coat, buttoning it in the front. Dust and soot clung to fabric, no matter how many times I brushed it away. Clutching my mask, I considered. Lavender? Peppermint? Both? Why not? I placed them within the hollow beak and strapped it on. To finish off the ensemble, I placed my wide-brimmed black hat atop my head. Staring at my mirror through the fogged eyepieces, I smiled.

I loved the way I looked when dressing for work.

And even better? The ensemble guaranteed anonymity. Not a single soul would realize their physician was—horror of all existing horrors—a woman. I’d long mastered a masculine voice and the general countenance of a man. Not a single soul during my schooling suspected I was of the fairer sex.

I grabbed my supplies and stepped outside, pulling the wooden door shut behind me. The day was overcast, the sun a faint yellow disc on the horizon. My breakfast curdled in my stomach. The smell was horrendous, even through my fragrant mask. A sickly-sweet odor of rot tickled my nostrils and quickly I realized why it was so overpowering. At the end of my street—which once dead-ended on a grassy meadow where children played—was a mass grave. Heaps of bodies, all in varying states of decomposition. Two perspiring men heaved more deceased on the pile. How long until they too took ill? Based on what I’d seen… not long at all. Under the scent of rot, was another: smoke. Far-away but probably not for long. Returning home this evening, I would likely be greeted by a massive bonfire except instead of wooden logs, the fuel would be people and disease.

Turning away from the grim scene, I went about my day.

First stop was the baker’s cottage and as expected, he’d already passed. His eyes stared sightlessly, anemic tongue protruding from dry, cracked lips. No more suffering... at least, for him. His widow and children were not far behind. Tucked in their beds, they all stared at me with glassy eyes, hair matted with sweat. The youngest, a child of no more than three, looked terror-stricken as I approached yet, couldn’t muster the strength to dissent. At the angles of his jaw, were nasty black smudges that would soon develop into buboes. From the bucket in the corner, I filled a ladle with cool water and allowed him to sip.

“Thank you,” the child said after drinking his fill, voice barely a rasp. Fear hadn’t completely retreated but dimmed. “What… are you?”

Under my mask I smiled. I’d been told I looked like a bird of prey many times, mostly owing to my beak-like mask. Others screamed when I came near them, insisting I was a harbinger of death or even the cause of the disease running rampant through the country. Speaking softly, I answered, “I’m a physician. And I’m here to help you.”

“Oh.” Exhaustion overwhelmed his features, and a coughing fit seized the boy—composed of wet phlegmy rattling. It had settled in his lungs then. Poor boy didn’t have much time left.

Reaching into my bag, I extracted a glass jar. “Here, let me help you.” Leather gloves plunged within and delicately, I picked up one of my little friends. I murmured to the black slick creature, “Here, help this boy.” Using the utmost care, I placed the leech on the boy’s neck where it attached greedily and began sucking. So meager was the boy’s strength, he didn’t even offer a peep of protest.

I repeated the process with the other family members, plucking a leech from the jar and attaching it to various parts of their bodies: underneath their arms, on the angles of their jaws, and in the widow’s case, in the groin region where a bubo the size of my fist wept purulent fluid. Once my little helpers were sufficiently bloated, I removed them and placed them back in the jar.

Hands once more plunged into my black bag and extracted a bible and rosary. Quietly, I recited The Lord’s Prayer and bestowed blessings on the ailing family. It wouldn’t be long now… I’d seen the plague far too many times and knew they had maybe a day left. Two if they were very unlucky.

The scene at the baker’s cottage repeated itself over and over. I entered each house to find more dying and dead and vainly, plied my trade to ease their suffering. Using my pestle and mortar, I ground up herbs and made them into a bitter broth, spoon feeding it to those who could still swallow. Placed more leeches. Offered prayers. Truthfully, I wasn’t quite certain I was doing much good. Yet, I persisted, remembering the Hippocratic Oath I swore during my schooling.

By the time I returned home, the sun had long set and a dim dusk had settled. Long shadows danced, capering on the walls of neighboring buildings. As I expected, a massive fire burned, rendering diseased bodies into nothing more than assorted bones and ash. Opening the door of my home, I looked back and shuddered. So many dead and more to come.

But… still, assuming the Lord saw fit to give me another day, I would rise tomorrow and dress.

And I would walk among the sick and try to ease their suffering.


About the Creator

N.J. Gallegos

Howdy! I’m an ER doc who loves horror, especially with a medical bent. Voted most witty in high school so I’m like, super funny. First novel coming out in Fall 2023! Follow me on Twitter @DrSpooky_ER.

Check me out: https://njgallegos.com

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. Expert insights and opinions

    Arguments were carefully researched and presented

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  2. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  3. On-point and relevant

    Writing reflected the title & theme

Add your insights

Comments (14)

Sign in to comment
  • Mackenzie Davis3 months ago

    What a horrendous time to contemplate, but a gripping narrative you created inside it. I was hooked from the beginning, and loved it all the way through. Wonderful job! I loved the part where she put the peppermint and lavender in the mask, and all the sensory details that followed.

  • Recca Addei4 months ago

    Great content. Keep it up

  • Liz Sinclair4 months ago

    Good story and pretty realistic about living through the Black Death. The sensory images of plague victims bodies rotting while still alive and the funeral pyres are very dramatic.

  • Whoaaa, this was so gripping right from the beginning! This was fantastic!

  • J. S. Wade4 months ago

    Wow ! What a powerful take on the challenge. Congratulations on the recognition and your soon to publish novel. 🥇

  • Naomi Gold4 months ago

    This was perfect for the challenge! I love how you used your real profession in a historical context, realizing women couldn’t practice medicine, but finding a way to do it anyways. Congrats on Top Story. 🥂

  • Dana Stewart4 months ago

    Great read and congratulations on the upcoming novel!

  • Asif Ali4 months ago

    amazing work

  • Alyssa Nicole4 months ago

    This is such a well-written and interesting story! The history of diseases and medicine is always so fascinating.

  • Ian Read4 months ago

    This was a beautiful historical fiction. Brilliant work! Well-deserving of top story!

  • Dana Crandell4 months ago

    Great story, Doc! Well worthy of Top Story. Congratulations!

  • kenneth M Gray4 months ago

    Excellent story really pulls you into the sad period in time

Find us on social media

Miscellaneous links

  • Explore
  • Contact
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
  • Support

© 2023 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.